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But

When I assign my freshmen to write about both sides of an issue, I tell them to pay special attention to the connective words they use. If you’re presenting the other side, you have to make clear that you aren’t suddenly changing your mind and going back on your own position. So you need to introduce the other side with words like “True,” “Admittedly,” “It could be argued that,” to signal clearly that this is somebody else’s position, not yours.

And you can’t leave it at that, either. Even with connectives like those, if the paper ends with the other side unrefuted, the reader will be puzzled. So wherever you present the other side, you need to reply to it, and with an appropriate connective word.

That word, I insist, is But.

Here’s how it works. Suppose a student is arguing the thesis, The earth is flat. Here’s the other side and a response:

“Admittedly, there is lots of evidence to support the view that the earth is a sphere rather than a flat disk. For example, many photos have been taken from earth’s orbit showing our planet as a sphere.

“But photos can be doctored, as any possessor of a smartphone knows. … ”

Why do my students have to use But? Because it signals return to the writer’s own point of view, in contrast with what precedes it. Here’s Annie Dillard, for example, quoting Stewart Edward White and then replying:

“‘As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer.’

“But the artificial obvious is hard to see. … ”

And here’s Sherman Alexie:

“If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy. But he is an Indian boy. … ”

I also point out the important distinction between but and though. Both signal contrast, but though is followed by a subordinate point, while but is followed by a main point. “But although it wasn’t wild, it was a fairly large and undisturbed lake,” wrote E.B. White, illustrating the difference.

And further, But can be useful in quickly identifying the main purport of an article. In some instances, you can get the gist of a whole article just by scanning for Buts.

But there’s a problem with advocating But. One of my best students explained that she had been given a solemn responsibility by an education professor: “As a future educator, you have a responsibility to use proper grammar. Your students will look up to you as a model of an educated person. If you use improper grammar, you will be failing future generations.”

And improper grammar, of course, includes not just ain’t and He don’t, but also But or And at the beginning of a sentence, and prepositions at the end. In fact, these latter strictures seem particularly significant because they require such vigilance to enforce, against the example of highly regarded writers.

I wish it were otherwise. But it’s not.

Note: (If you don’t approve of self-promotion, please skip this paragraph.) I can’t claim to be the discoverer or chief advocate of the wondrous properties of But. Credit for that must go to the late William J. Kerrigan, whose composition textbook Writing to the Point: Six Basic Steps was first published in 1974. It has the most useful guidance on all aspects of expository writing of any book I have seen. Now it’s available in a sixth edition, refined by me, but with the principles unchanged. You can find it here.

 

 

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